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By Salil | Issue No.2 Journeys | |

Journeys in my life

V M (Nitant) Kenkre

(The sketches in the article are by the author)

I am not certain but think it was the popular Marathi novelist Na. Si. Phadke who gave tyros a simple recipe for writing stories, suggesting that one describe an event, then change the course of what was happening, describe what came from the new trajectory, and keep deliberately changing course in this fashion. The assurance was that the procedure would automatically result in an entertaining story. I have never tried this prescription in writing. However, I have unwittingly done something similar in activities undertaken in my own life. My life’s trajectory, or ‘world line’, in the parlance of relativity physicists, is, I notice after the fact, filled with excursions unrelated to one another. The absence of a theme or unifying thread in those little winding journeys is what, if anything, characterizes my sixty-seven years.

I must confess I had serious misgivings when Isabel Santa Rita Vás, noted Goan playwright and good friend, asked me, in her capacity as guest editor of TambdiMati, to write about my life’s journeys. Very few readers are interested in other people’s lives unless there is something profound or at least remarkable in them; I am firmly convinced there is little of that kind in mine. Why then did I push aside my trepidation and decide to subject you to this waste of your valuable time through this article? Just a desire for self-indulgence? Perhaps. More likely because I have enjoyed these journeys and enjoy also the telling of the journeys. For one hedonistic reason or another of this kind you find me bending your ear about my meanderings. My apologies in advance.

The first trip I remember

I recall many kinds of journeys ranging from actual walks from one location to another to excursions into subjects to study, skills to acquire. The first is a real walk from the village of Merces (a few miles from Panjim) to a primary school I attended in Kalapur or Santa Cruz as it was known. Imagine a six-year old boy walking alone, clutching his satchel, heart in his throat, casting furtive glances all around, as he walked by the village cross, all covered by moss from the monsoon season, bimal trees growing next to open wells, and a thatched hut of a mentally disturbed fellow (known to us simply as ‘Piso’) who would threaten real or imagined trespassers by hurling well aimed curses and sometimes stones. Impressions of that fearsome journey, trivial as they might seem to you, are carved deep in my memory. Even at this moment, separated by six decades from the event, I can feel the shivers up my spine as I neared the rustling foliage. I shudder at the recollection of how from within its dark interior moving eyes kept watching me. I can see and hear dark green frogs in the nearby pond call out my name without stop. And I can hear the sound of the steps and feel the breath of the slimy creatures that walked behind me all through the journey, tapped me on my shoulder, yet invariably disappeared every time I turned.

I am certain you, the reader, have a journey just like that deeply entrenched in your memory. For me every bit of it remains vivid to this day and the details are entangled in a fascinating way with myths I later read in books or stories I was told.

There was a little lake further in that Merces-Kalapur road which I could swear is the very one where four Pandavas in the Mahabharat were put to death and resuscitated by the Yaksha who asked profound questions. Further along there were trees thickly concentrated on both sides of the road. I am convinced they were the ones that Tarzan swung from on his way to his final encounter with Kerchak. There was a little lake further in that Merces-Kalapur road which I could swear is the very one where four Pandavas in the Mahabharat were put to death and resuscitated by the Yaksha who asked profound questions. They were also the ones Robin Hood hid in while he waited to waylay the Sheriff of Nottingham. A few yards further was a clearing where the hordes of Chenghis Khan attacked on horseback brandishing spears amid blood-curdling screams.

Educational excursions

Like most children from Hindu families in Goa at that time, my brothers and sister pursued a bit of primary schooling in Marathi and continued by joining an English medium school. Inadvertently following the Phadke prescription (described at the beginning of this article), I did not. My variation on the theme was in going to the Portuguese Lyceum instead. Originally this was the result of a challenge thrown jokingly to me by a Portuguese acquaintance of my father—he dared me to master the ability to converse in Portuguese in record time. The eventual and real reason was that Lyceum training tempted me with its offering of multiple languages, English, French and German in addition to Portuguese. Languages have continued to fascinate me throughout my life to such an extent that the area of research in theoretical physics that I pursue in my professional activities is statistical mechanics—it is commonly regarded as a language of physics. So I ended up doing my Segundo Grau as well as my Primeiro Grau in the Portuguese primary school (where Isabel’s mother was my teacher) and then proceeded to join the Liceu Nacional Afonso de Albuquerque, the Portuguese secondary school of learning in Goa at the time. Like most of my other journeys, the one into the Lyceum for my secondary education was also short-lived (although highly enjoyable) and three years later I switched to the English medium in People’s High School, rejoining the customary path.

Around this period my father sent me on three educational excursions. The first was for learning more of the Portuguese language (from Ramchandra Shankar Naik, the teacher of teachers, the Director of the Escola Normal), the second for learning more of the Marathi language (from Vitthal Sukhtankar, the Founder of Kanya Shala, a girls’ school in Panjim) and the third for learning mathematics (from Vinayak Mahatme, the Principal of another preparatory school known to many as Matmo’s). These excursions were fantastic! In the first, I learnt analytic skills of Portuguese grammar taught as a sumptuous banquet of logic by my father’s friend I called Ranumama, from the second, versification and meter rules of Marathi poetry from a man of vast erudition and understanding of Indian literature who was a relative whom I called Dada, and from the third, fascinating unification of geometry and algebra. The sounds and smells of the afternoon when I learnt from Mr. Mahatme (Vinoomama to me) in his living room that simultaneous equations of algebra could be visualized as intersecting lines, and solved thereby effortlessly, are alive in my mind today. A comparable thrill in mathematics came my way only years later when de Moivre’s theorem uncovered the connection between trigonometric and exponential functions through complex numbers.

There were also shorter educational excursions to other scholarly friends of my father. Noteworthy among them is my occasional pilgrimage to the house of Shambarao Sardesai. A smart old man with a sharp tongue, he had translated the Hino Nacional (national anthem) of Portugal: ‘Herois do Mar…” into beautiful verses in Marathi and yet defied the Portuguese by writing under a pen name ‘Onde Esta’ a Verdade’, an article defending Hindu faith against an absurdly launched attack by some unthinking writers.

He was very advanced in age when I met him. His plea, jokingly stated that I not use my nickname Nitant when talking to him because it reminded him of approaching Kritant then, makes much sense to me now at this stage in my own life: the Sanskrit word Kritant means Death.

Other early journeys of the mind and the heart

Other such educational journeys when I was very young were to Madgaom (Margão). Philosophy and religion appeared in the guise of lessons on Hindu thought in debates arranged by the Saraswat Brahman Samaj which at my request my father took me to. They were delivered by a number of my father’s friends, one of whom, Narsimhabab Sukerkar, was strongly opposed to having a young boy wasting time on spiritual matters. A very clever debater with enormous skill in logic and argumentation, he was sharp and cutting whether in speeches or conversation but a considerate man as well. He recommended to my father that I should outdistance myself from spiritual pursuits and focus, instead, on science and mathematics. My father’s educational technique was to expose me to all that was possible and leave the choices to me. I loved to spend time with my beloved teacher Pe. Xico (Francisco Monteiro), a kind, energetic, and handsome Catholic priest well known in Goa for his special and wonderful mixture of soccer and Christianity, laughter and learning. He directed the Lar dos Estudantes and helped countless young children build their character on Altinho, the top of the hill in Panjim. Primarily with him, but sometimes with João Guimarães, a Portuguese boy who was my great friend, I would discuss the Bible, ‘o pecado original’, and the differences between Hindu and Christian faith. Lest you think that I wasted all my time in such abstruse pursuits, I hasten to say that with my friend João, and also Francisco Abreu, I spent a good deal of time running around the hilly slopes behind the Lyceum buildings pretending each of us in turn was the “Imperador da Terra, Marte e Lua.” We felt certain our cape-like raincoats (capotes) made this supposition believable.

The wonderful shade under the trees in the Lyceum compound refreshed us as did the delicious Portuguese pastry in the Cantina nearby.

Impressed by the devotional aspect of Christianity, I would spend time in the Chapel of the Lar dos Estudantes and pray to the Deity which was a combination, in my ecumenical mind, of Shiva and Christ—I used to shun Krishna, the favorite of many young boys for his playfulness, because he killed his maternal uncle, and my own was my absolute favorite. The fascination with matters religious, or philosophical, has remained with me all my life as naturally as have fiction and table-tennis, physics and poetry.

Image1 TambdiMati Kenkre

Man praying in Church, January 2003

An arduous journey that punctuated my young life was one through Polem and Majali to Bombay (now Mumbai of course). No sardines were ever packed more closely in a tin than us in the caminhão (nickel plated bus) that took us to that southernmost point of Goa, so we could subject ourselves to the threatening queries of the border patrol as we crossed from Portuguese to Indian land. Strange tongues, and exhausting travel through crowded trains, themselves stunning, did not prepare me for the wonder that was Bombay. I could write a large book about the experiences I had in that enormous city but will only mention, in passing, one overwhelming item that captured my interest and taste: the delicious omelettes in the Iranian restaurants of the city.

Many more journeys stand out in my mind, undertaken on my return to Goa. One of them to Velinga where in the group of people I had travelled with I saw a beautiful girl I fell in love with, head over heels. I will say nothing more of an entire part of my life created by that event except that I married that girl years later against all odds, and she is still my wife, God bless her. Another trip was one summer to my aunt’s house in Chandar. It has left magical imprints in my mind. One of my cousins wove a fairyland story of archers and fighters in his school and arrows that pierced the skin but did not hurt, a second joined hands with me to invent boots that one could wear that allowed one to fly by pressing buttons on them; the third, to whom I am truly indebted, introduced me to English poetry and showed me that even mortals could write verse.

There were journeys into theatre arts. Learning from my father who was an amateur actor of repute—he acted in famous Marathi plays such as Vikarvilasit (translation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet)—, I myself tried my hand at acting as the convict in the English play Bishop’s Candlesticks and did the final act in the Marathi play called Bebandshahi.

My role was that of the drunkard king Sambhaji, tortured and executed by Aurangzeb. I even won a couple of prizes for the acting. There were less successful trips into Cricket, Chess and Carpentry. My ambitions to become an accomplished bowler were destroyed despite herculean attempts as were my efforts later in life to become good at chess. Carpentry withstood all my attempts to knock at its doors and planning a three-legged stool that would not stand upright despite intense efforts of my will is as far as I got.

Journey from literature to science; from science to engineering

Words, their shapes and sounds, and their ability to express ideas that keep wanting to burst out of one’s mind, had been my primary object of concern from childhood. To be a writer, perhaps a poet, is what I wanted. Mathematics was interesting but less attractive, and science largely insipid. This slowly changed as the result of a variety of factors. One of these factors was the discovery, whose architect was mainly a brilliant teacher in Dhempe College, Joe Menezes, that mathematics was not merely interesting but beautiful. His conversations with me made sprout the seeds planted by Mahatme years earlier. Always present in my mind was the decision made early to marry the pretty girl I had seen at the Velinga picnic and I convinced myself that this could happen only if I became an engineer. And that irresistible forces would make it impossible otherwise. The decision was taken, correct or misguided, and I focused totally on studies to excel in the exams of Inter-science. My primary method for the studies was taking long walks.

Walking entails repetition. Arms swing, legs lift, advance, touch down, then lift again. The breath goes out. And in. Therefore, walking is meditation, quite like the japa of a mystic mantra. Invariably, whatever their effects on transportation, these little journeys we call walks have always brought me clarity in addition to tranquility. I therefore employed them as my main procedure for studies. During hour long walks from my house to the wondrous beach of Miramar, I would undertake intense cerebral activity that was doubtless assisted by the motion. The absence of company heightened my understanding of the concepts I examined as I walked, whether of trigonometry, centrifugal forces, or the manufacture of sulphuric acid. The brilliant Miramar sunsets at the end of the long walks provided added value to the regimen.

A few years further into my life the habit was continued in my undergraduate days at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). My peripatetic perambulations through the pipelines of Powai is what I recall calling them in a letter I wrote at that time. Much later, when I became a practicing academic with lecturing among my daily duties, the walks became an essential component of preparing the lectures. The journey from my house would help in the construction. The return would settle the timing of the lecture.

To this day I find I do not give good talks if I have not had a walk to prepare them. Long walks also provided the framework for intense discussions with my Ph.D. students who needed such time and opportunity to sharpen their thinking. This continues till now to the extent my aching back, slipped discs, and gout permit it.

But let us return to my college days just as I undertook the journey away from subjects I liked into engineering and left Goa to pursue it in IIT Bombay. I remember much of that stay in the town of Powai. Four years of intense immersion into many subjects of study I disliked and a few I came to love, such as physics and mathematics.

Good instruction by some teachers. Brilliant comrades, super-sharp colleagues of a level of intelligence I never met, before or since. Those peripatetic perambulations through the pipelines I mentioned above, spiced with discussions with friends about everything under the sun: science, art, music, philosophy, blended as only teen-agers know how to blend, with humor and silliness of the most trivial kind. And finally, when I realized that I had met my aim, a quick exit from engineering, now into pure science rather than fully back to literature. Because no Indian university or institute would allow me to change away from engineering into pure science without wasting two to four years of my career (likewise no British or Canadian institution), I applied for graduate studies in theoretical physics at Stony Brook, USA. I was accepted, primarily because of my strange learning trajectory and stated interests, I believe, and was off on yet another journey, previously quite unplanned—to the United States of America.

Forays into skill acquisition

Before I enter into a description of journeys undertaken in my professional life, first as a young adult and then as the fossilized man that I am now, may I comment on forays into the acquisition of skills. I have always been fascinated by how one learns (have even given a public lecture on the subject in Goa a couple of years back, under duress), and have never been satisfied with John Holt’s books on the subject. William James, the American philosopher-psychologist, has some interesting insights to offer on an allied topic. The mechanisms of learning to integrate a function in calculus and learning to execute a smash in badminton are both mysterious to me and I hanker to understand them. Obviously I am intimately involved in such activities in my profession of a teacher (and an eternal student).

Let me start with my excursion to learn magic. The interest came to me from my brother who had a few books on the subject and a great passion for theatre magic. I have myself preferred what is known as close-up magic where you make coins appear, little objects float without support, cards and similar objects do your bidding, and generally mystify your onlookers with small miracles. I began at the age of ten or so, returned to magic many times in life, and while I am no master performer, I love it and know enough to appreciate the greatness of close-up magicians like Cardini and Slydini, Dai Vernon and Al Schneider. Magic is pure theatre, with misdirection and practical psychology playing prominent roles, and supplemented by the enormously hard work required to master sleight of hand. Inventions and techniques one encounters in one’s normal life, even difficult physics and mathematics, are often trivial in concept compared to the creations of the grandmasters of magic.

My difficult attempts to learn to sketch and draw began at about the age of forty- five, when I heard that my father, who was an artist (a painter) by profession, had suggested that I should stop science and take up art. I had none of the skills required but was so motivated that for a period lasting many months I used to draw for more than six hours every day. This journey proved very frustrating until one day, aided by Betty Edwards, a Californian writer who wrote ‘Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain’, I suddenly began to draw passably. A piece of advice given by Ms Edwards turned the tide. Draw what you see, she said, not what you think it should be. There are many ways of interpreting these words, some trite. But the profound version seemed to generate itself and stick in my mind. One should not make one’s own models, ovals as eyes, triangles as nose, lines as hair, as the components of one’s drawing. One should simply watch, very minutely, perceive fully, and then draw what one sees. It sounded to me like Vipassana, the Buddhist advice to see all as it is, not as what you project on it. I have no illusions as to my ability to draw. I must confide, however, that there is no activity that I find as pleasing or as restful to the soul.

Buddhism, particularly the Theravada kind, that I just mentioned above, merits comment. It has been sweeping the bookstores in the USA in the last decade and a half. Just before that fever began, I came across it, in the form of books by Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk. It hit a resonance that nothing ever had. A tumultuous temperament and hot-headed reactions being natural to me, it has not come easy. But I deeply empathize with the Anatta concept and many other pieces of the framework that the Theravada Buddhist uses to interpret his perceptions. It is another journey, long and difficult, that I have been on. But it does not lend itself to description.

Recently serious poetry writing came within my ken at the insistence of a brother who demanded affectionately that I publish what I wrote. A self-indulgent error on my part to do what he asked, but a book called Tinnitus appeared as a consequence last year. There is much more to share here. But let me turn to my professional journeys.

Professional journeys

Literature gave way to pure sciences, pure sciences to engineering for four years, that to theoretical physics, surely the purest of natural sciences. The field of theoretical physics that I received training in was statistical mechanics. Being a language of physics, it has allowed me to constantly change the area within physics that I do my research in. Formalistic non-equilibrium response theory, followed by photosynthesis and energy transfer in molecular solids started my career as a student and then as a postdoctoral research associate. From there I undertook random walks into condensed matter physics, polaron phenomena, and quantum transport. Then returned to materials science with a theoretical physicist’s viewpoint of engineering phenomena, including ceramics and microwave interactions with them. Yet another foray was into the nonlinear science of solitons, waves that defeat dissipation and dispersion, and live long by turning poisons into life-prolonging nectar.

These various fields of research have experts in so many different lands that real physical journeys resulted. My research took me to Germany many times in the early part of my career. I visited Stuttgart and Ulm first and then Duesseldorf and other German places. It was so much of fun and an eye-opening experience to learn about how different people and different cultures react to what one encounters in the world.

Italy was also a frequent place to visit, particularly Pisa, Rome and Bologna, and lose oneself in ancient art. And Lyngby in Denmark, and Amsterdam in the Netherlands. A bit of France. Often Czechoslovakia when it was so called (Prague many times), and Vilnius in Lithuania, and Moscow in Russia, both before and after the change.

Sometimes England and Scotland. More recently Spain and Portugal, and of course often various parts of India whenever I have had a chance. I have just returned from a trip a couple of weeks ago from Kyoto in Japan. I am still dripping from the wonderful immersion in a new country, so polite, so rich in culture.

I am impressed by their sense of Bushido, puzzled by the rigidity of their social structure, awed by their dedication to work, struck by stories of their cruelty, and, (what I have decided to focus on) fascinated by their three scripts. I want to learn to write in them.

Sketch of a stone cow from Kitano, a Japanese shrine in Kyoto, March 2013

Sketch of a stone cow from Kitano, a Japanese shrine in Kyoto, March 2013

The last fifteen years have made me concentrate on the study, via the methods of theoretical physics, of the unlikely subject of the spread of epidemics as well as of biological phenomena in the cell. I built a center called the Consortium of the Americas for Interdisciplinary Science of our University, which invites Latin American scientists to the USA. The resulting collaborations with Argentina, Brasil, Chile and Mexico, as also Venezuela and Colombia, have led me to travel extensively through those countries, speaking Portuguese again in Brasil and using the language to understand people from the rest of the countries. I have been delighted to spend time in Rio de Janeiro and Buzios, Recife and João Pessoa, Santiago and Viña del Mar, Bariloche and Buenos Aires, Puebla and Mexico City. All those journeys have been enlightening and invigorating.

Latin American scientist playing music (as respite from physics).

Latin American scientist playing music (as respite from physics).

Theoretical physicist from Mexico -- talented in multiple directions.

Theoretical physicist from Mexico — talented in multiple directions.

End of this journey—this article

I must confess, however, that not all journeys I have undertaken in my life have been pleasant. There have been some to the dark corners of my own character. They have left me shocked, sad and impotent. Some have evoked terrible fear I did not know I could feel, exemplified by the occasions I have had to go near an MRI machine for a medical test—I happen to be impossibly claustrophobic. Some have brought grief, some humiliation and shame. I like to think all have been learning experiences, and I am grateful to have the chance to continue to undertake them. I know friends who are lucky enough to lead life in a determined way, like arrows shot from a bow. By contrast, I have always been a random walker, pulled in multiple directions, lingering, hanging out, then for ever changing course.

self portrait.

Self portrait. 

 

Professor VM (Nitant) Kenkre is Distinguished Professor of Physics and Director of the Consortium of the Americas for Interdisciplinary Science, University of New Mexico, USA. He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In addition to writing two books, he has authored more than two hundred and fifty scientific articles. His interests include visual art, philosophy, comparative religion and literature. His volume of poetry is titled Tinnitus (2011).

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Issue No.2 Journeys

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